BKS Iyengar and the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute
If there is one person to be considered the foremost Ambassador of Yoga to the west it is BKS Iyengar. His numerous demonstrations, charismatic personality and untiring efforts to prove the living potency of Yoga, has had significant effects on introducing people to Yoga all over the world. He has received a number of distinguished titles from universities and medical organisations from all over the world for his great contributions to the field of Yoga. His many publications have been a constant reference source for various yoga practitioners and he has become an authority in his own right in many aspects of Yoga. However if anybody thought Iyengar came to Yoga easily just because his sister married Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in 1923, they should probably review their assumptions.
Born on 14 December 1918 into a family of 13 children in a poor village called Bellur in the Karnataka state, BKS Iyengar had a scarce upbringing. From an early age he suffered continuous attacks from influenza, malaria, typhoid, and tuberculoses of the lunges. At the age of nine his father passed away, leaving a vacuum in his family since nobody could guide him in his health. Iyengar recalls this time with great despair:
My studies were affected as I was forced to spend more days in bed than at
school. This made me a backbencher in class and I always scored below the
marginal passing marks. The authorities were promoting me to the higher class hoping that I could cope along with others. Study became monotonous and laborious to me. (Astadala Yoga Mala: 16)
How this man eventually became known as one of the foremost authorities of Yoga, Iyengar attributes to his stay in the household of Krishnamacharya. At the age of 15 he was requested by Krishnamacharya to go to Mysore and stay with his older sister while Krihnamacharya travelled to Maharastra to visit the Kaivlayadham Yoga center in Lonavla. This preliminary visit lasted for two years and during his stay in Mysore Iyengar, he was first introduced to Yoga:
One day Guruji called me and taught me three or four asanas. He said, "Do these asanas, you will regain some health". My body was like a log of wood; my middle fingers could not even reach my knee. He therefore told me, "You want to do Yoga in this life? You are anàdhikàrin (not privileged or predestined). He never called me for the next lesson! I thought that was the first and last lesson. (ibid: 54)
But soon circumstances threw an unexpected turn in his favour when the prime Yoga student Keshavamurthy suddenly disappeared, never to return again. Krishnamacharya was suddenly deprived of his prime 'showpiece' for the Yoga demonstrations that occasionally took place. All of his other senior students were married and busy in their own right, so he therefore caught hold of young Belur Krishna Sundararajan Iyengar in order to transform him into an adept demonstrator of asanas. Krishnamacharya was known as a fierce taskmaster and transformed the young weakling within a period of a few days. He no longer went through the various sequences step by step, which supposedly was the common practice at the time, but rather he forced the young Iyengar through more than 30-40 postures the first day and after that demanded he do backbends over his legs. Iyengar received no sympathy for all the hard work he put in and was never guided thoroughly to reach refinement in the postures. Whenever he asked his preceptor to come and examine his progress, he was briskly told: "I will see you on the platform on the day of demonstration" (Ibid: 55-6). But Iyengar did not fail in his demonstration and proving his skills further he was eventually included in the troop that Krishnamacharya travelled around the countryside with, giving various demonstrations on Yoga. One of these travels provided him the opportunity to go and teach in Pune and at the age of 17 he left the guidance of his Guru to try his luck as a Yoga teacher.
These early years were anything but easy for Mr. Iyengar. He starved, was ridiculed for his work, and struggled for the sheer maintenance of his body. His faith in Yoga never left him however and eventually he came to prove himself as a great teacher. Being separated from his Guru, he was left to his own device of how to develop his practice and he started to experiment with the practice on his own rather than following a particular sequence that Krishnamacharya was famous for in his early days in Mysore. This creative period transformed Iyengar's own Yoga practice and suddenly the seed that he was given from Krishnamacharya blossomed into a creative investigation of how to uncover intelligence from within the Yoga postures. This later manifested in a meticulous precision of alignment, and BKS Iyengar therefore revolutionised the way people were relating to asanas by giving them a scientific approach or how they could affect the body and nervous system when done properly.
No doubt, what also shaped the development of BKS Iyengar as a teacher was his numerous encounters with J. Krishnamurthy (The famous philosopher raised by the Theosophical Society as the coming Messiah, but then abandoned them in adult age and became known for his personal philosophical inquiries into aspects of ontology and truth, not to mention his relentless questioning of religious and spiritual authorities!) The two met in 1946, and the close student-teacher relationship that developed between them was of mutual benefit. Krishnamurthy received tutelage in Yoga and Iyengar was introduced to a high philosophy of thought. The two spent time together in India and abroad and their relationship introduced Iyengar into much of the 'societe' of the western and Indian elite.
Yehu Menuin is another important figure who introduced Iyengar to Europe with a visit to France and Switzerland in 1954. This great violin master opened many doors for Iyengar's exposure to the west and from his contacts in England with people like Beatrice Harthan and Silvia Mehta. Yoga became introduced to the broader scale of the population. The turning point after his many demonstrations and lectures came in 1960, when he published "Light on Yoga." The book became an instant classic and is still considered by many today as the 'bible' of Hatha Yoga. The number of copies sold worldwide is now more than a million and it is translated into more than 17 languages. With prolific publications of more than 20 volumes, his other works such as: "Light on Pranayama, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Three of Yoga" have all each sold hundreds and thousands of copies worldwide. His most recent book, "Light on Life" has become a spiritual classic as well as a personal manifesto of what it means to live breath and embody the spirit of Yoga.
What is particular with Iyengar's way of Yoga is the strong level of personal experience he brings to it. The practice personally transformed him from a weakling that used to be a failure in most of his undertakings to a man that later developed a strong body and vibrant intellect, one who further developed a strong need in communicating his experiences to the world. His own name that bears the title of his method clearly indicates that he is a "self-made-man" who grew from trial and error. His two years with Krishnamacharya consisted mainly of asanas, but he later refined these asanas and developed his own articulation of how to understand them:
The importance is how we may develop the dormant consciousness within the body. How may we penetrate from this end to that end? Like I told you yesterday, how did you understand trikonasana on the right leg? You need to expand down into the left leg. In a similar way I needed to find out what is the depth of each asana and how does it work in opposition. How to find the bone of the right leg in opposition to the left? Do you know how to elongate it? The energy on the right leg is it equal to the left leg? Is the energy straight on the bank of the outer leg? So this is what I had to discover. The intelligence had to go into how to penetrate into the postures to make sense of them. It's not just gymnastics or callisthenic style, that is not what vinyàsa is about. Vinyàsa can be different from gymnastic style, but then you have to develop it intellectually. And that is what I did. I brought the refinement, but the foundation was my guru who provided me with the base that I grew out of. (Interview in Nama Rupa: 2005)
Iyengar Yoga is famous for its clarity in precision of postural alignment. The practitioner spends a long time in each asana with a particular focus on the standing postures. Most of the postures are the same as Ashtanga Yoga taught by Pattabhi Jois, but the postures are modified into a particular sequence and hierarchy in the practice of asanas. The whole vinyàsa sequence is omitted and this is probably due to the fact that Iyengar modified the practice he was taught in his younger days to suit the capability of students all around the world. Today there are more than 2,000 certified Iyengar teachers worldwide. In excess of 300 centres are dedicated solely to this method, which are organised in a body of 32 'Iyengar Yoga Associations' spread out over 30 countries. His method is indeed a world phenomenon, his numerous publications together with his relentless efforts to document the improved benefits of Yoga have therefore had a major impact on introducing Yoga to the masses.
Today at the age of 88, he has withdrawn from active teaching and handed over the daily classes at his home in Pune to his son Prashant and his daughter Gita.Thousands of students still come every year to see him - there is a two-year waiting list just to come and study at his Institute, and although he may no longer be as easily approachable as he used to be, the privileged few who become his audience report of a man of tremendous vigour. Some people may wonder what will happen to this system when this great legend dies, but personally he does not have the slightest worry:
If he wants it to survive, it will survive. Who am I to speak of the future? What I've done I've done, I have cultivated, and I have built up. I have presented and developed the subject of Yoga. Now leave it to eternity. (Nama Rupa: 2005)
R. Alexander Medin
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